Teaching our children how to be careful with words is not an easy task.

We can teach them from a young age about the Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would want them to do to you.”

As they get a little older, we can teach them the importance of thinking 10 seconds before speaking what is on their mind.

And as our children arrive at the adolescent stages, we can take it one step further by teaching them to think about the consequences of a post on social media before it is posted. Ha! Now, that one is easier said than done.

But the number one thing that we can do when trying to help our children to be careful with words is to be a good example ourselves.

It is not always easy to watch what we say. A traffic jam or a reckless driver could very easily cause a slip of the tongue.

A bad day or stress could prompt us to say something that we might not normally say. 

Frustration with a boss, colleague, friend, or family member could cause us to say something to that person or about that person that probably would have been better left unsaid. 

Whatever it is that prompts us in our busy, stressful lives as parents, we have to be careful about what we say — not only because we need to focus as adults on being kinder to each other, but we need to set a good example for our children.

From the moment they are born until they are adults, our children are watching us.

They are watching and listening to how we interact with people we know and how we interact with those we do not know.

They are watching how we respond to the people around us when things are going our way and when things are not going our way.

They are watching and listening to us tell a story to our friends and family members about what we may have emailed or texted or said to someone face-to-face.

They are listening to how we speak about other family members or other people in the community.

Children are ALWAYS listening and watching, even when we think they are not.

We do have to remind ourselves that children are children. They are learning how to test the boundaries. They are learning what is polite and what is not polite. And they haven’t been on this earth for too long, so they are learning how to control their feelings and their words.

And for the older kids out there – learning how to be a member of social media is not easy. I cannot even imagine the stress that this adds to the lives of children every day.

While our number one duty as a parent is to be a good role model with our words, we also need to be good teachers (and we can all do this, even without a degree in education). 

So when our children do say something that is hurtful or unkind — and they will because it is only human — we need to teach them how to move forward after speaking or typing these words they wish they had not uttered in the first place.

As a teacher and a mother, I work hard to speak to children (my own children and my students) the very moment unkind words are spoken. How do I do it?

  1. I tell him or her that the first step is to apologize when unkind words are muttered. Don’t be too proud, even if you feel that your response to that person was warranted. Life is too short, so apologize now.
  2. The next step is to encourage the child to reflect upon the words he or she has said. How do they think their words made someone feel? Would they have liked it if someone said that to them? Hopefully, this reflection period will be the first step in a child’s thinking process before he or she even allows an unkind word to leave his or her mouth or fingers (if the child is old enough to use social media) in the future.
  3. Finally, children need to be reminded that the recipient of the unkind words may forgive you, but the sad fact of the matter is that the unkind words quickly said, gossiped, texted or tweeted may never be forgotten. Those words can’t be taken back. That person may always hold onto the fact that you hurt them once and may not ever fully trust you because they are worried that you will hurt them again. So teach your children, after they have apologized and reflected about words they have said, to learn from their mistake and to not do it again.

As we all work hard to teach our children, our students, our peers, and maybe even ourselves to be more thoughtful with our words, read and share this tale to explain what damage can be done if we are not careful with our words:

Once upon a time a man said something about his neighbor that was untrue. The word spread around the village as one person told another. But soon the truth came out—what could the man do? He went to see the village priest and the priest gave him some strange instructions.

“Take a bag full of feathers and place one feather on the doorstep of each person who heard the untrue story you told. Then go back a day later, pick up the feather, and bring the bag back to me.”

So the man did as the priest said. But when he went back to pick up the feathers nearly all of them were gone. 

When he went back to the priest he said, “Father, I did as you said, but when I went back the wind had blown the feathers away and I could not get them back.”

And the priest replied, “So it is with careless words, my son. Once they are spoken, they cannot be taken back. You may ask forgiveness for what you said, but you cannot take your words back. The damage has already been done.”